Syriac Catholics worshipping in the Church of the Immaculate Conception
have close links to the Vatican. Most Christians in Iraq are Assyrians,
and still speak Aramaic, the language used by Jesus as he proselytized
2,000 years ago.
The Christian heartland lies in the north of the country, roughly
tracing the boundaries of the ancient Assyrian empire, and Qaraqosh is
one of a string of settlements in the Nineveh plains near Mosul that
trace their origins back to the dawn of Christianity.
Since Islamist terror spread throughout
Iraq in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the number of Christians
has dwindled from around 1.5 million to roughly 500,000, perhaps even
less. The rise of ISIS delivered the latest blow to the community.
the campaign to rid Mosul of ISIS now under way, the jihadists are
slowly being flushed out of the surrounding towns and villages and
Nineveh’s Christians, most of whom sought refuge in the autonomous
Kurdish region that managed to hold off ISIS, are looking forward to
going back home.
“Of course we will return and rebuild it,” says Father Amar with emphasis.
But first, the jihadist menace needs to be fully vanquished in Qaraqosh, and that hasn’t happened yet.
task to liberate Qaraqosh fell to the Iraqi army’s 9th Armored
Division, which is helped by a small Christian militia known as the
Nineveh Protection Units.
Equipped with U.S.-supplied Abrams main battle tanks, the 9th Division
reached Qaraqosh on Oct. 19, but found the going tough against an
elusive and fanatical enemy. ISIS launched a series of suicide car bombs
against the army, and shifted positions in tunnels to attack
Losses have been mounting.
According to Major Mohammed, who heads the field hospital a few miles
further back, 18 soldiers have lost their lives in Qaraqosh, and around
80 have been wounded.
the outskirts of town facing Mosul have not been cleared, and sniper
fire rings out from areas that were thought safe. Given the army’s vast
superiority in manpower and equipment, the failure to secure the town
raises questions about its performance.
In an MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected vehicle) near the southern
rim of the city, Maj. Fuad Jassem sits at his radio to receive
information coming from units throughout the town. A voice crackles over
the airwaves. It is a tank commander, who has just come under sniper
fire. He requests permission to shift his 60-ton war machine to a safe
position instead of engaging the enemy.
Near the warehouses where the sniper was spotted, crews lounge next to
their armored Humvees, warning off visitors from passing by on foot.
The Iraqis say inadequate coalition air support is a reason for their sluggish progress.
“Sometimes we see Daesh [ISIS] convoys come into the town, but the coalition does not bomb them,” says Maj. Jassem.
the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the two priests are too caught
up in their emotions to concern themselves with the slow progress of
the army and the Christian militias.
“We are so happy to return to our church,” says Father Majid, who can barely keep his eyes from welling up.
the spacious courtyard next to the church, where the Christians of
Qaraqosh used to gather for religious festivals, the jihadists set up
mannequins for target practice, and empty cartridges litter the stone
floor. According to Maj. Jassem, ISIS stored weapons and ammunition in
the church, knowing that it would not be bombed by the coalition.
As if at an excorcism, the priests and militiamen gather to light
candles and place them on the altar. Then Father Amar and Father Majid
sing again, and their voices echo through the nave, for a moment
dispelling the gloom that hangs over these sacred precincts.